Conestoga Wagons, part 3 – classes of wagoneers, songs, Lancaster turnpike

Conestoga wagoners were a rugged lot who competed ruthlessly among themselves for the business of the road and the right-of-way. Yet the majority were honest, industrious and thrifty, loyal to the traditions of their calling. They were proud of their teams, their wagons and their work. It is said that many of them refused shelter from the weather themselves if their teams had to remain unsheltered.

Among themselves they held to a code of courtesy as evidenced by the fact that when they stopped at wagon stands on cold winter nights the younger men deferred to the older ones by giving them the best places near the fire in the “common” room. All slept on the floor on narrow mattresses of shoulder width which, with their blankets, they packed in their wagons while they were on the road. On pleasant nights they usually slept outdoors.

At the wayside hostelries the wagoners drank, sang and danced. Old Monongahela whiskey was three cents a glass, two for five, while a meal cost about twelve cents. They smoked long and somewhat rank cigars which sold four for a cent and were called “stogies” because of their popularity among Conestoga wagoners.

In the early days of the Turnpike, sharply defined lines were drawn between the various classes of wayside taverns. Those of the better class, such as the famous Spread Eagle of Strafford’s early days, were known as “Stage Stands”, those taverns patronized by wagoners and teamsters. Before the time when these hostelries of various types became frequent along the highway, travelers secured entertainment at private homes.

John Galt, an early historian, writing in 1738, tells us that in the house of the principal families in the County “unlimited hospitality formed a part of their regular economy. It was the custom of those who resided near the highways, after supper and the religious exercises of the evening, to make a large fire in the hall, and to set out a table with refreshments for such travelers as might have occasion to pass during the night. And when the families assembled in the morning, they seldom found their tables had been unvisited”. But inns soon became havens for the sojourner whether “he were farmer, drover, teamster or traveler, upon business or pleasure bent.”

Conestoga wagoners ordinarily wore plain suits of homespun wool, blue cotton shirts and broad-brimmed hats. For the most part they spurned underwear and stockings, their feet bare in their high leather boots or in their “stogy” shoes, so named for the wagons they drove. Since each teamster manned a vehicle hauling two to six ton loads, they were necessarily men of prodigious physical strength.

In “Pennsylvania Songs and Legends” the author of the chapter on “Conestoga Wagoners” writes “It is almost inconceivable that any man “for only one accompanied a wagon) could remove or replace the heavy endgate of a wagon with the rear wheels six feet high – to say nothing of loading and unloading the cumbersome barrels of merchandise.”

Among the wagoners’ feats of strength were these: lifting a hundred pound keg of nails out of the wagon by grasping the narrow edge of the keg between the fingers and thumb of one hand; unloading a six hundred pound barrel of molasses singlehanded; walking off with a half-ton of pig iron to win a wager; handling a 56-pound weight with the ease of a gymnast throwing a dumbbell; and lifting a wagon off its four wheels by lying under it and pushing upward with both hands and feet.

Some of these feats seem as fantastic in the telling and as unlikely as some of the tall tales exchanged around the blazing log fire in a wayside tavern. In addition to their story telling these wagoners were known as singers of ballads and drinking songs as they stood around the wayside barrooms.

To the accompaniment of fiddle, accordion or banjo they sang such favorites as “Little Brown Jug”, “Ach, du Lieber Augustine”, “The Arkansas Traveller”, “Turkey in the Straw” and many others.

In addition to singing their traditional ballads, wagoners made up their own songs to long familiar tunes. “Pennsylvania Songs and Legends” gives the texts of many of these new ballads, improvised from old ones, among them parodies on “Jordan Am a Hard Road to Trabbel”, “Lieber Heindrich” (Dear Henry) and “The Farmers’ Alliance”.

As these wagoners traveled beyond their native counties of York and Lancaster they swapped songs and stories with the people they met along the road, thus accumulating a vast store of folklore. Apparently no particular attempt was made to record this folklore while the original wagoners were still on the road. What has come down to us has been mostly through the memories of their sons and grandsons.

Even the original source of the name “Conestoga” is not clear, although it is supposedly the Indian equivalent of “Great Magic Land”. In a map of the lower Susquehanna valley dated 1665, there is a stream of water named “Onestoga”. There is also an early tribe of Indians designated as “Conestoga”, as well as a manor in Lancaster County. All these antedate the Conestoga wagon and the Conestoga horse which, according to tradition, were named for the section of Lancaster County where they probably originated. Even the Philadelphia – Lancaster turnpike was for a time called the Conestoga Road because it was the favored route of Conestoga freighters.

In 1792, the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Company was chartered and two years later America’s first hard-surfaced road was completed, at a cost of $465,000. The route of the Turnpike was virtually that of the old King’s Highway, which at some points it paralleled and at others it crossed. Nine toll gates were set up along the route to collect from wagons and stage-coaches a specified toll, based on the number of horses and width of tires. By 1798 a nine arch limestone span bridge was finished over Conestoga River, thus completing the last mile of the new highway.

This new road “eliminated much of the hardship of travel – and some of its color, too”, to quote from “Pennsylvania Cavalcade”. Faster travel was possible and lighter vehicles came into popularity, “foreshadowing the doom of the massive Conestoga wagon”. Then in the middle of the nineteenth century canals presented a new method of transportation, and only a little later the first railroad between Philadelphia and Lancaster was in operation. The deep resentment of the teamsters over this encroachment on their domain was expressed in bitter fights in taverns between railroad laborers and teamsters.

But eventually it became plain to even the wagoners themselves that their wagons were superseded by the canal and the railway. It was then that the merry songs of this stalwart group were changed to this last unhappy one: “Oh, it’s once I made money by driving my team, but now all is hauled on the railroad by steam. May the devil catch the man that invented the plan, for it ruined us poor wagoners and every other man”.


For her information for this series of articles your columnist is indebted to “It’s an Old Pennsylvania Custom”, by E. V. Mitchell; “Pennsylvania Songs and Legends”, edited by George Korson; “Pennsylvania Cavalcade”, a Pennsylvania writers publication, and “The Wayside Inns on the Lancaster Roadside”, by J. F. Sachse.